Culture brings people together around shared interests and plays a pivotal role in promoting social cohesion. It strengthens identities and encourages participation, recognition and legitimacy at both an individual and collective level.
Cultural institutions have a fundamental role to play in fostering inclusive and cohesive societies. In an effort to better fulfil their core missions, organizations are increasingly adopting strategies of inclusion and seeking new ways to embrace, engage and learn from a society that is more diverse than the one they were established for. Museums, libraries, monuments and venues for art, music, cinema, dance, opera and drama are exploring the role digital technologies can play in removing barriers and increasing opportunity and participation for all people, including people with disabilities.
Beyond the cultural institution, makers and creators are experimenting with new and collaborative ways to increase engagement in cultural activities such as drama, visual arts and music. Technology can help support, harness and share these efforts and go towards shaping a culture that is truly representative of all people.
This also holds true for cultural products that are produced, packaged and distributed by private and public organizations. Television and radio programs, books, magazines and newspapers are all cultural assets that contribute to our individual and collective identity and that are responsible for both forging and dividing societies. Without full access to this capital, people with disabilities will not be able to engage in society on an equal footing. User groups and digital accessibility specialists are working together with public service providers and the cultural industry to optimize the production and distribution of “born-accessible” content available through mainstream channels at the same time, at equal cost and with the same attention to user experience.
The technical challenges faced by the cultural sector are as varied as the content, devices, uses and the ways in which humans interact with technology. This G3ict White Paper presents a small selection of pioneering initiatives in this area and makes the case for going above and beyond the needs of disabled users in order to embrace a renewed understanding of cultural life.
Sandrine Sophys-Véret is in charge of the Culture and Handicap program within the Department of Education and Artistic and Cultural Development and the Department for the Coordination of Cultural Policies and Innovation of the French Ministry of Culture. She coordinates French policy and inter-ministerial relations on access to culture and artistic practices for people with disabilities. In this capacity, she is responsible for the work undertaken by the Commission Nationale Cutlure-Handicap.
A national commission for culture and disability
Each and every one of us, regardless of ability, should be able to access all aspects of culture: art and heritage (museums, architecture, monuments, archives, etc.), artistic activities (fine art, dance, theatre, etc.) and cultural products and services (film, television, radio, theater and books). Each individual should also be given the opportunity to pursue a career in the cultural sector.
It is this principle that led the French Ministry of Culture to create the Commission Nationale Culture-Handicap (CNCH or national commission for culture and disability) in 2001. Every two years the Minister of Culture and the Minister for Disability meet with representatives from disability charities, cultural institutions and user groups to review and discuss efforts made to increase access to culture for people with disabilities and to explore how changes to policy and legislation might help to improve the situation.
In addition to keeping close tabs on how cultural institutions are fulfilling their legal requirements with regards to physical access, the CNCH reviews digital outputs to see whether they comply with national accessibility standards. This article gives an overview of the current situation in France and the Ministry's role in supporting an inclusive cultural landscape.
French legislation supporting access to culture for people with disabilities
The implementation of best practice in digital accessibility is written into two key pieces of French legislation:
The Loi n° 2005-102 pour l’égalité des droits et des chances, la participation et la citoyenneté des personnes handicapées (law on equal rights and opportunities, participation and citizenship of people with disabilities) stipulates that all public websites must respect international web accessibility standards, and a subsequent decree (n°2009-546) defines the technical requirements for implementing standards.
The Loi n°2006-961 du 1er août 2006 relative au droits auteur et aux droits voisins dans la société de l’information (law on copyright and related protection in an information society) introduced a copyright exception to support people with disabilities and allow authorized organizations to make and distribute copies of works in accessible formats without prior authorization from rights holders. This was amended in 2016 to accommodate a broader understanding of print disabilities, and to facilitate the production and circulation of accessible documents.
These legislative texts provide a solid framework on which to build a fully inclusive cultural environment.
The role of digital technologies in improving access to culture
Museums, galleries and heritage sites
Onsite digital visitor aids
Digital technologies provide greater opportunities for increasingly tailor- made visitor experiences as users are able to select their preferred means of accessing content.
A number of fixed and mobile digital solutions have been developed in cultural venues across France to support visitors with disabilities. Institutions that have been particularly active in this domain include the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (that has developed such solutions as robotic aids to support visitors with mobility issues and interactive labels1), the Grand Palais (that has experimented with connected glasses to provide signed information for deaf visitors) and the Musée de l'Homme (that has implemented interactive labels and displays for people with learning disabilities).
The Ministry of Culture is currently conducting a study into the accessibility of cultural venue websites, and the initial findings show that there is still some way to go. The results will help the Commission to pinpoint failings and pull together a road map to help support institutions to improve the accessibility of their online offering.
A study conducted by the Ministry of Culture revealed the need to increase efforts in France to provide audio description, subtitling and captioning for live performances. The approach must be adapted according to the performance, the venue, the audience and the funding structure.
France's Centre National du Cinéma (National Centre for Cinema) is very active both in improving access to theaters and to film. The digitization of films increases opportunities to add subtitles and audio description to the files natively and to provide these at film projections.
Cultural products and services
Television and radio
The France Télévisions Group has taken a number of measures to improve the accessibility of its programs through audio-description, subtitling and sign language, and is involved in a cross-sector R&D project to develop an accessible digital player2.
The question of improving access to books and reading is one of the Ministry's priorities. Recent changes to legislation should improve the production of accessible books and make these available to larger numbers of print-disabled readers. Through the PLATON platform, the Bibliothèque Nationale Française (French national library) plays a pivotal role in the coordination and sharing of accessible versions of publications. The Ministry will also work with publishers to support them in the production of born-accessible digital books which hold great promise for all stakeholders.
In 2012, the Centre National du Cinéma put a funding mechanism in place to support the digitization of historic films. Of the 602 films that have received funding since 2012, 582 are accessible in audio-description. The CNC also provides financial support for films on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD to increase accessibility and broaden audiences.
Supporting an inclusive cultural sector
In 2010, the Ministry of Culture launched an annual call for projects, with a budget of €500 000, to support the development of innovative cultural services designed to increase access to creation and heritage.
In order to create inclusive public services, cultural sector professionals must receive the necessary training. The Ministry works closely with cultural sector training providers to ensure that accessibility is written into undergraduate and post-graduate courses.
In 2017, the Ministry published the fourth in a series of guidebooks for cultural sector professionals entitled Expositions et parcours de visite accessibles (accessible exhibitions and visitor journeys)3. A chapter of the book is devoted to increasing access for users with disabilities through multimedia. The other titles in the series include Culture et Handicap - Guide pratique de l’accessibilité (2007)4, Accessibilité et spectacle vivant. Guide pratique (2008)5and Equipements culturels et handicap mental (2010)6.
Partnerships with the IT industry
The Ministry encourages cultural institutions to develop partnerships with IT sector companies who can offer technical expertise and innovative solutions in exchange for a greater understanding of the needs of cultural organizations.
Partnerships with Disability organizations
Cross-sector workshops and meetups, such as those organized by BrailleNet, are an effective way to get project managers, industry providers, and end-users together to look at how to best meet the needs of users. Participative events such as hackathons may also provide a welcome opportunity to develop and test new ideas.